November 29, 2023

STEM Careers Blog: Astronomy


Through centuries of meticulous observations and discoveries, Astronomers have provided crucial insights that have completely changed our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Astronomers have been responsible for grasping the movements of the stars and deciphering our principles of gravity and celestial mechanics. They laid the groundwork for the future, plotting trajectories and navigating spacecraft across the cosmos. The development of telescopes, from the first basic convex and concave lenses to in-space observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope, has not only expanded our vision of the universe but also served as a vital tool for scouting and studying distant planets, stars, and galaxies. Now, especially as human action in space increases, Astronomers play integral roles in our planning and execution of plans. The specialized knowledge and skill set of these professionals puts them in a position to apply it in missions and projects collecting more data and conducting more research.

Astronomy and Astronauts

Beyond studying the universe from earth, Astronomers have been able to participate in missions into orbit! The more that intentions are set towards space, the more vital that Astronomers and astronomical research becomes to the success of these future missions.  In these positions, Astronomers work to ensure conditions, make predictions based on celestial movements, and contribute to research projects.  There have even been Astronomers who have been selected as Astronaut Candidates and have travelled into space themselves! Three Astronaut Astronomers are John Grunsfield, Karl Gordon Heinze, and George Driver Nelson.

John Grunsfeld is a veteran Astronaut with a total of five space missions, STS-67/Astro-2, STS-81, STS-103, STS-109, STS-124. Grunsfeld entered the world of Astronomy by studying Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later also earned his Master of Science as well as his doctorate in philosophy in Physics at the University of Chicago. Before becoming an astronaut, Grunsfeld applied his research skills and worked on many projects including experiments using gamma and X-rays to make better astronomical observations. Astronaut Grunsfeld was selected by NASA in March 1992. After completing STS-67 and STS-81, his remaining three missions were largely spent performing repairs and upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope. In total, Astronaut John Grunsfeld spent over 58 days in space.

Karl Gordon Heinze is a veteran Astronaut who completed mission STS-51-F. He explored his educational passions after spending time in the military and earned a bachelor’s in mathematics and a master’s in Astronomy at the University of Virginia. Soon after, Heinze earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Astronomy from the University of Michigan. In his work, he acted as an observer in observatories in America, South Africa, and Australia and even held a position as senior observer for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He was selected as an Astronaut Candidate in 1962. After being on the astronaut support crew for many missions, Dr. Heinze was selected for STS-51-F to assist in delivering the Spacelab-2 laboratory module to be added to the International Space Station. In total, Astronaut Karl Heinze spent over 7 days in space.

George Driver “Pinky” Nelson completed three missions as an active astronaut, STS-41-C, STS-61-C, and STS-26. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Harvey Mudd College, and a Master of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in astronomy from the University of Washington. He was a talented researcher and took up a position as an observer. Nelson’s work as an observer took him from an initial position in America to the Netherlands and West Germany. Nelson was selected as an Astronaut Candidate by NASA in January 1978. He assisted with missions before completing STS-41-C, STS-61-C, and STS-26. These missions focused on conducting tests and retrieving or releasing satellites. In total, Astronaut George Driver “Pinky” Nelson spent over 17 days in space.

Astronomy Careers

Studying Astronomy can take many different paths and your educational experience can influence the type of work that you do in the future. For example, some Astronomers earn their bachelor’s degree in Astronomy while others focus primarily on physics or mathematics and then specialize in Astronomy for their master’s or doctoral degrees. Different applications of Astronomy create diverse opportunities for the aspiring Astronomer. A degree in astronomy opens a wide array of career paths within the STEM fields, offering opportunities in various sectors, including research, academia, technology, and more.

  • Research Scientist or Astronomer: Individuals with a degree in astronomy often pursue careers as research scientists or Astronomers. They work in observatories, laboratories, or research institutions, conducting studies on celestial objects, analyzing data from telescopes and space missions, and making significant contributions to our understanding of the universe. As space exploration reaches vaster distances, the need for Astronomers and Research Scientists grows accordingly.
  • Space Industry: Graduates in astronomy can find opportunities in the burgeoning space industry. They may work for aerospace companies, contributing to satellite development, space missions, or the exploration and utilization of space resources. As humankind aims for the moon and beyond, these businesses need team members with solid understanding of the principles and applications of Astronomy to reach the set goals with accurate projections.  Astronomers can act as guides in this respect, performing calculations, presenting strategies, and analyzing mission information.
  • Instrumentation and Technology Development: Astronomy graduates often possess skills in developing and operating sophisticated instrumentation used in telescopes and space missions. They can work in industries involved in developing cutting-edge technology, such as optics, sensors, and imaging systems. Intimate experience with complex equipment and extensive knowledge about Astronomy are great strengths for teams looking to push the boundaries of observation, data collection, and research.
  • Academia and Teaching: Pursuing higher education in astronomy can lead to academic careers as professors or researchers at universities and colleges! Professors guide students, conduct research individually and in research groups, and contribute to the advancement of astronomical knowledge. Being associated with a university or other educational organization can provide great benefits for personal research as well as fulfillment as new Astronomers grow through their passions.


An astronomy degree equips students with a strong foundation in critical thinking, problem-solving, data analysis, and research methodologies. These skills are highly valuable and can be transferrable across diverse fields or in interdisciplinary settings. For those who find their passion combining mathematics, physics, computer science, and other disciplines in the wonderous world of space, a degree in astronomy not only prepares individuals for specialized careers within the field of astronomy itself but also provides a versatile skill set that opens doors to diverse opportunities across numerous STEM disciplines and can even lead you into space yourself! There are so many career opportunities for those passionate to pursue them!

About the author

Jodie is a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University pursuing an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. She has always been fascinated by space and STEM, and has been fuelled by the strong aerospace community at Embry-Riddle. This interest in STEM and a love for writing have pushed Jodie to apply these passions as a Communications Intern at Higher Orbits in 2023.

Jodie Cory

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